The Joy of Old Library Books

I can’t be the only person who gets sheer joy out of discovering ancient library books. The ones that are tucked away in the basement where nobody even remembers them. The ones that you have to open without breathing because it could crumble into dust at any minute. The ones with the flowerly language that fills a beautiful minute with what could have just taken a few seconds. The ones that you absuolutely cannot believe they allow you to check out and just stuff into your backback and walk out of there. It’s like being an art theif. It’s like being atime traveller.

I’m holding right now an original copy of “The DIagnosis of Stupor and Coma” by Plum and Posner. This book changed the world so much that they released many versions of it. But this is the first version. I don’t know how many copies of this book exist anymore, but one of them is right here with me. With a spine that has seen better days. With call numbers from the library written directly on the book’s cover. WIth a little slip of paper showing that someone checked this book out on Novemeber 7th, 1984. And on February 19th of 2006. And many other dates, but none anywhere recent. Who were those people? Did they find as much joy as I did in carefully turning the pages?

Someone wrote all over chapter one. Possibly multiple someones because there were several writing utensils used. They wrote the word “Evidence” as if at long last they had found what they were looking for. They underlined some passages in red pen, probably never realizing some day I would be judging them.

This book has a story unique to this volume and a story unique to the physical book itself. Sure, this is where the term “locked-in syndrome” was invented, but to whose eyes did that term flow? Who read it and agreed? Who read it and scoffed?

If I weren’t so conscientious, maybe I’d leave a note in this book for the next person who comes along someday. But this will suffice.

Thoughts on "The Art of Saving Relics"

I've just read the Scientific American story by Sarah Everts called "The Art of Saving Relics" and I found it to be the sort of great science writing that brings up an issue in a way not normally considered. Normally, when we think about the degradation of plastic over time, we think about what a shame it is that it doesn't break down faster. That conservation perspective, of watching plastic fill up our oceans and landfills, is turned on its head by this article which pitches a different kind of conservation related to plastics -- the kind where a museum is fighting to preserve plastics.

The examples given of the objects that need preserving are quite iconic: the acrylic paintings of Warhol, the spacesuits from the original moon landings, and so on. The article tells the stories about the discovery that these plastic treasures are degrading, and the efforts taken to try and find methods to detect the problems and solve them. The descriptions of leaking fumes and discoloration assist the reader in realizing what the museum is up against. Especially compelling to me the decay of old film -- where even digitizing the content is not the same as preserving the original.

This article makes me wonder what else is impermanent that we take for granted today. What else will crumble over time until only the written descriptions remain?

I recommend the article, it is some good stuff.

The Subjective Grade -- Do Teachers Give "Fair" Grades?

If you think that your instructor is giving you more or fewer points than you feel that you earned on an assignment -- you may be right.

I work as a Teaching Assistant (TA), and in my years of grad school (as well as occasionally during my work as an undergrad) I sometimes need to grade the work of students. Generally, I enjoy it, but depending on the type of grading needed, it can also drive me crazy.

I've been in many types of grading situations. I have been given complete autonomy over grading some assignments. I have had instructors tell me that I am grading too strictly. I have had other instructors tell me that I am grading too leniently. I have read essays out loud to a blind instructor who then told me what to write and how to grade. I've placed exams into a mystical magical grading machine and had the decision taken completely and literally out of my hands. And in all of these cases, except arguably the last one, there is a frustrating amount of subjectivity in the grades assigned. In other words, room for points to be given that aren't deserved, and room for points to be taken away undeservedly.

It can be something as simple as how bad the student's handwriting is, which determines how far into the essay question the grader can get without becoming frustrated. It can depend on what order they grade the papers in, depending on whether they begin to feel more or less lenient at the tail end of a day of grading. It can, of course, depend on the relationship that is built with a student. It can even depend on how much time is given to complete the assignment of grading the assignments.

Subjective grading can be reduced somewhat by using "blind" grading procedures, where the grader doesn't know to whom the work belongs. Another way to reduce subjective grading is by using a grading rubric that is both thorough but also practical to apply. But at the end of the day, the grade given is to some degree up to chance.

Maybe that's a good thing when the system would give an undeserved grade and the grader can intervene to prevent injustice from the cold hard numbers. But more often than not, the subjectivity of grades seems to be a disservice to students.

What do you think? Is blind grading too impersonal? Do you find subjective grading useful for rewarding students who deserve it?

The Oldest Opinion Polls

I'm working on helping a collection of students create opinion polls for a research methods class, and it got me wondering how opinion polls (public surveys) even came to be in the first place.

I imagined I would be able to find records of scientific opinion polls from Ancient Civilizations, such as Egypt, or maybe Greece, but I couldn't find such a thing. According to what I could find, back in older times, people known for thinking (such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau) apparently mostly considered public opinion to be a force beyond measurement, sort of like an emergent property where the whole was more than the sum of the parts.

It wasn't until the mid 1700s that the term "public opinion" even began common use! France was one of the first countries to start using the term, but did not have a scientific approach to measuring it. The first official straw polls of public political opinions probably didn't show up until the 1800s. The United States had a small one in 1824 regarding Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, but since there was no effective way to get a massive amount of people to respond to the survey, it only garnered roughly 500 responses.

Today, you can't get away from the things, and as someone who has studied the design of surveys, many of them aren't even being conducted effectively or fairly in the first place. Marketing teams could seriously benefit from learning how to write questions that aren't loaded, leading, or double-barreled. There are lots of ways to write a bad survey, and much fewer ways to write a good one.

Sources:

Erikson, R. S., & Tedin, K. L. (2015). American public opinion: Its origins, content and impact. Routledge.

Madonna, G., & Young, M. (2002). The First Political Poll. Retrieved from: https://www.fandm.edu/uploads/files/271296109834777015-the-first-political-poll-6-18-2002.pdf

Feeling Small

The YouTube channel is doing better than ever. ARTexplains Science and History is reaching more people for more minutes with more videos. But because YouTube is changing the rules about monetization, that is all going to become much less rewarding soon. Unless I can make some serious leaps in watch time in the next three weeks or so, I go back to being a non-partner, which means I won't get paid for my hard work on those videos -- some of which took me months of research and planning.

The good news, I suppose, is that this is really kicking me in the rear to work harder. In the past week, I have been staying up late and putting in long hours to try and figure this out. I've created a new channel introduction video, a satire video on the demonetization problem, two new content videos, new channel art, new merchandise, a better website... the list goes on and on. So maybe this has been a blessing in disguise, a nice little fire under my butt to wake me up to the possibilities. It still burns, though.

A Lack of Imagination -- Aphantasia

As a cognitive psychologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the brain works. It was shocking, then, when I recently learned that there is something in my brain that doesn't work. Specifically, that I am extremely lacking in my ability to generate mental imagery, a condition called aphantasia.

The most incredible part is that I made it this far in my life without realizing that the way that people describe mentally imagining (e.g., scenery, colors, memories, etc.) is a literal visual experience. I'm not sure how it hadn't occurred to me previously that the way that I mentally list things such as the colors of objects or events that happened is not the "normal" way of accomplishing these tasks. Apparently, because the experience of these mental states (moving pictures or lists of events for memories, for example) is a very subjective thing (perhaps even classifiable as a type of qualia), discovering that the way that you do it is different from other people takes some seriously frustrating discussion.

For me, it happened during a graduate course. We were discussing mental rotation, mental "zooming in", and other cognitive tasks such as imagining colors. I became increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, I interrupted the discussion to ask some questions along the lines of "But you can't really imagine colors, can you?" and "Surely this is all metaphorical, like, imagining traits of colors?" and "You actually see where something is in space when you imagine it?". But no, it turns out, as indicated by my lifelong navigation troubles, that when people claim to be imagining mental maps of spaces that they were accomplishing something that I had never quite learned to do.

This discovery led to me feeling really weird for a couple of days, and several discussions with friends as we tried to piece together how it is that I accomplish tasks that the average person uses mental imagery for. I also found out, now that I was paying attention, that my ability to use mental imagery isn't completely absent, just very impoverished. For example, when I am tired (e.g., just waking up) or asleep, I can do some basic visual imagining like other people apparently always can. I also believe that my abilities are improving, slightly, through exercising them -- whenever I walk through a building these days, I do my best to imagine what the map looks like. It takes a serious level of focus.

If you are interested in reading more about this, there are some recent articles such as this one: https://www.livescience.com/61183-what-is-aphantasia.html

Or check out this video from SciShow that explains how recent the naming of this condition was: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpK6ZJea9fk

Like a Cat on an Infinite Waterslide -- Shallow Interactions

I've always felt challenged when attempting to keep my small talk small by a part of me that doesn't enjoy the "good, you?" and "fine, yourself?" conventions. I find myself wrestling with a twirling, maddening, urge to say something else entirely. I'm not sure to what extent my experience with this overthinking of small interactions is shared by others, but my guess is that it's a common thing uncommonly expressed (except perhaps here, in the safety of the net).

A typical strategy I find myself using when confronted by an unexpected small conversation is to say the first thing that pops into my head, which is typically supremely silly. The other day it was "Oh, you know, same as usual, just fighting crime in a dangerous city." Another day it was "The work never ends, I'm like a cat on an infinite waterslide."

What's interesting here is that I'm not sure whether I am being more or less authentic than the person who responds to a shallow platitude with just another shallow platitude. Am I more, or less, distant from my speaking partner when I make a joke instead? I'm not sure.

What I can say for sure is that the sheer abundance of shallow interactions navigated in the span of a single day makes me crave the deeper ones. The ones that twist into dark tunnels under the surface until they suddenly pop back out into the light, like whitewater rapids. But those come around so much less frequently, and must be spent wisely -- which is perhaps why sometimes, I find myself attempting to convert shallows into deeps.

K, But Do You Ever Write Fiction, Though?

Asking a science communicator whether they have ever written fiction is kind of like asking a lion tamer if they've ever tried their routine with a hippopotamus. Yes, that would also be impressive, and yes, there are skillsets that would transfer, and yes I have entertained the idea and have also attended many hippopotamus shows that make me want to find my own hippo mouth to stick my neck into -- but no, it's not really my thing.

Young me tried out fiction quite a bit. I pray every night that every scrap of my old fanfiction has been wiped clean from the net. It had the same problem that a lot of teenage fanfiction had. Here is an actual excerpt: "The tunnel was very deep, and everyone was screaming and wailing as they went down." And another: "My crutch fell out from under me and I collapsed into a kneeling position, waiting for the end." I wrote some weapons grade angst back in the day.

And every once in awhile, I just let myself write some unhindered nonsense that usually ends up as a poem or crumpled up in the wastebasket or both. But, truth be told, there is enough interesting stuff going on in the world around us everyday that we don't need fiction nearly as much as we need non-fiction.

I think everybody goes through a phase in their life as they are growing up when they get downright depressed about reality and what it has to offer. Declaring in a frustrated and yet somehow monotone voice “This is lame. Everything’s lame.” Fortunately, later on in life (at least I hope so), something unusual and true tickles them in the brain in just the right way to spark up their wonder yet again. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re all held hostage on a space rock hurtling around a ridiculously hot ball of gas suspended by nothing but the as of yet poorly understood fabric of spacetime. Or maybe it’s a particular moment staring into the eyes of an animal and realizing the alienness that lies within, capable of staring back at you in just such an alien moment of non-understanding. Or maybe it’s the color of the sunset, and realizing that those colors aren’t in the sky but twirling and mixing at the back of your brain in an inexplicable way wherein red might not be red at all to anyone else you know.

And so, I think it is important to communicate wonder where we see it. And as appealing as it is to disappear into a land of fairies and magic, the true tales of amoeba and black holes are not some sort of poor substitute hocked by a secondary school teacher attempting to trick you into paying attention in class -- and in my opinion, these non-fictions are the more powerful for wonderment.

What do you think? What do fiction and non-fiction mean to you?